Parsis horse racing World Zoroastrian Congress

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Parsis horse racing
MUMBAI: In a plush, wood-panelled viewing box at the Mahalaxmi racecourse on Sunday, horse breeders Cyrus Poonawalla and his brother Zavaray, were rooting for Cyrus’s horse, Elite Model. In the adjacent grandstand, over 1,000 Zoroastrians, from around the world, cheered as Cyrus’s horse bagged first place.

“The idea of a Zoroastrian Million (race) came to my mind as soon as I decided to be the principal sponsor of the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress (WZC),” said Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman of the Serum Institute of India. “Most of these conferences have monotonous sessions and I was sure that all the delegates would consider this a welcome break.”

Sunday was the first time ever that the Mumbai Racecourse dedicated a race day to a single community. The delegates—dressed in spiffy suits and summer dresses— could bet on races like “The 10th WZC Trophy”, which was won by Nigella, and “The Zoroastrian Multi-Million” won by Safe Bet.

“It was superb fun,” said 22-year-old Hosherdar Polad, a delegate at the WZC, whose great-grandfather owned horses. “I think it is very important because horse racing is part of ‘bawa’ history,” added Polad.

In fact, the 130-year-old Mahalaxmi racecourse would not even exist if Parsi industrialist Cusrow N Wadia had not travelled by ship to Australia in the 1800s to study Melbourne’s world-famous racecourse and then advanced an interest-free loan to replicate it in Mumbai.

Many Parsis have also been involved in breeding horses. The first stud farm in India, set up around 1939, was Parsi-owned, said Farrokh Wadia, president of the National Horse Breeding Society of India (NHBSI) and the owner of the Yerawada Stud Farm. Currently, the two biggest trainers are also Parsi—Bezan Chenoy and Pesi Shroff, who is also a former jockey. Women have also contributed to the sport, added Wadia, citing trainers like Nina Lalwani.

Racing also owes its current existence to a few Parsis. Just after independence, Morarji Desai decided to ban the sport and gave the industry six years to wrap up. At that time Wadia’s father, Faly, who was the vice-president of NHBSI spearheaded a movement to save the sport, which eventually succeeded.

“When the British brought horse racing to India, Parsis were leading entrepreneurs like Jamsetjee Tata,” said Cyrus Poonawalla, “and therefore they took a fancy to horse racing.” However, he added, today the interest in racing amongst the community has receded because Parsis have migrated to other countries and they can no longer afford the luxury of betting and owning horses. “It is a sport for kings and Parsis instead of becoming kings, as they once were, are now becoming executives,” he added.

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